EK Interview: AJ Frena


 AJ Frena‘s work is violent and beautiful, there’s as much humanity in his animals as there is animalism in us humans.  His work is well thought and concise, even if the execution is chaotic at times the emotion is clear but developed.  His interview follows, I suggest you read it:

Tell us about yourself, where are you from?  Where are you now, specifically and abstractly?

I’m a freelance illustrator and painter from a small town in Texas. I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where I graduated with a focus in illustration. Currently I live in Dallas, Texas with plans to move back to NYC soon. More abstractly, I’m still working to figure out where I want to see my work and myself in the future.


When did you graduate from the School of Visual Arts in NYC?  What was your experience like there?  Was it there that you decided to focus on illustration?

It was at SVA that I decided to major in illustration. I actually went into college planning to focus on film and animation, as I was a lot more interested in storytelling at the time than painting. In the middle of my first year, I discovered illustration and became interested in the idea of being able to tell stories with my drawings. It seemed like a good match.

My overall experience at the school was positive. My classes broke a lot of my bad habits and constantly forced me out of my comfort zone. It gave me connections, friendships and experiences I would never have gotten otherwise and that I would not trade for anything.

I graduated from SVA in 2011.


What do different animals mean to you?  To what end do you employ different animals in your work?  As humans we can build spaceships and fly to the moon, we can perform CPR and resuscitate people who have drowned, but for all our understanding, our abstract thought, we still live in great disharmony.  We war.  We murder.  What do you think humans can learn from animals?  In what ways should we strive to be more like animals?  In what ways, if any, less?

I try to be careful not to romanticize nature in my art, as I’m of the belief that the difference between animals and us is the ability for human beings to choose how they approach survival. Nature and animals are inherently violent and disharmonious in their original state, not unlike human beings. Nature however lacks the gift of choice, which is invaluable to our lives and experience. Despite all the awful things that people do to one another, this difference is incredible and not something that I believe should be given up for the sake of nature.

When I use animals as symbols, I am a lot more interested in studying how people project human characteristics onto nature than any possibility of people learning directly from them. I am really fascinated by mythology, fables and bestiaries– stories where animals are given distinctively human characteristics to represent different aspects of human vice, goodness and experience. My art attempts to reflect this interest.


In many cultures hyenas are seen as treacherous, villainous, however in Matriarchy, you have depicted a motherly, even protective hyena, her teats extended to feed and standing over children protectively.  What do you think of the reversal of roles?  Was that a conscious decision, was that your intent? 

I find hyenas really interesting. They are not only matriarchal, but the females have a lot of characteristics that our society tends to stereotypically associate with males. Even their genitalia are almost indistinguishable from their male counterparts.

Using the hyena, an animal that according to our society depicts both masculine and feminine (motherly) characteristics, I guess can be attributed to thinking about how society enforces a gender binary. As someone who struggles often with their gender identity, the hyena strikes a chord with me.

All that aside, more simply I thought it would be an interesting take on the Romulus and Remus myth.


How do you name your work?  Where did the inspiration for the name for Odyssey come from?  Are the scenes from the Odyssey directly reflected within the piece?

“Odyssey” was a production piece for a commercial pitch, which modernized the story. I wish I could say something more interesting than that!


What has your experience as a freelance artist been like?  What was the first freelance piece you did?  Was it successful?  What is a lesson that you learned the hard way?

I’m still starting out, so it’s a difficult road with its ups and downs. I was very fortunate in that my first freelance gig was with Nike, which went well.

I think the lesson that I have learned the hard way, which I am still learning, is to not be discouraged with rejection and big gigs that end up not working out. Too often myself and other artists let this get to us, and for many this can mean slowing down productivity or giving up altogether. The world of illustration is a harsh one and this is easy to do.


Where are you most often emotionally when you paint?  Are you all over the map?  When I write I listen a lot of post rock.  As a matter of fact my computer informs me that Threnody by Goldmund clocks in at 51 listens.  Do you have a particular genre of music or band that you listen to while you work?

I’m definitely all over the map emotionally when I work… it is my job, after all. : )

As for music, it really depends on what I’m into at the moment. I love music of all types and my Slacker radio plays everything from rock to jazz to rap to video game OSTs. Since I have been learning how to play the guitar, my playlist has featured a lot of experimental and classical guitar lately.

I also watch a lot of Netflix while I work… I have gone through many re-runs of Breaking Bad and Futurama.


What are you working on right now?  What project has been tumbling around your head most recently?  Have you started it?  How long does it generally take you from the inception to the finish of a piece?

It really depends on the piece how quickly I can get through something from start to finish. Most of my jobs give me about a week and a half to finish a job, so the deadlines help with completing work more quickly. When I have no deadlines and I am just working on a personal piece, it can be anywhere from a week to a month– it depends on the complexity of the piece.

I have a couple of ideas swimming around in my head at the moment, one that may be my next piece. I would really like to illustrate Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing me Out one day… so much fantastic, surreal imagery featuring animals.


Pick two: Soup, Salad, Sandwich and tell me which kind you like the best.

I’m a huge sucker for soups and sandwiches, it’s hard to choose just one! I guess my favorite soups would be vegetable soups and tom yum goong, and as for sandwiches… in NYC you really can’t beat a classic Italian sub or a reuben.

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